Stratford, the final frontier...

Simon Calder The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"YOUR GUIDE to free-spirited living" - the tag for TNT magazine makes it sound a promising read. For those of us who are not over-inclined to business-class, five-star travel, this week's edition looks especially good. The London giveaway magazine reveals the winners for its first-ever Golden Backpack Awards.

Expecting some wild and wonderful winners, I turned eagerly to the awards page. What a let down: the best train journey is neither India's Darjeeling mountain railway nor the Trans-Siberian - it is the London-Paris trip on Eurostar. Though the timekeeping and on-train catering on the 8.23am from Waterloo are arguably more reliable than on the 7am Chihuahua Al Pacifico, Eurostar is nowhere in terms of scenery, local colour and cultural interest.

The favourite backpackers' hostel is much more appetising: Kadir's treehouse in Turkey, which I look forward to visiting. I hope it proves more exotic than the runner-up - the YHA in remote Stratford-upon-Avon.

On to the Best Man-Made Monument prize. I'd have guessed it was a toss- up between the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China or Angkor Wat in Cambodia - with a special mention for the monastery at Petra at sunrise. No; the honours were mostly taken by structures of the late 19th century. The Eiffel Tower rose above the competition, easing the Pyramids into second place, with Tower Bridge making an appearance as third-greatest achievement of humanity.

Surely the great backpacker plane journeys would triumph in the airlines section? Maybe the three-times-a-week hop from Birmingham to Ashkabad on Turkmenistan Airways; the Syrian Arab Airlines link to Mumbai via Damascus and Abu Dhabi, perhaps; or the Avianca red-eye from Bogot to Buenos Aires? Disappointingly, the UK and Australasia carve up the honours: Qantas, British Airways and Air New Zealand take the first three places.

No category for the best hitching place or worst backpacker cafe in the world - instead, the bland section "Favourite Country". In reverse order, these are Turkey, New Zealand and England. The winner is presumably the same country that grabs third spot in the best railway journey award: "Glasgow to Oban, England".

TOMORROW AT 8.23am you may care to reflect that the world changed, exactly five years ago. That was when the first passenger-carrying Eurostar train set off from Waterloo for Paris. The Channel Tunnel has carried 20 million mostly happy passengers since then, and has provided a welcome alternative to flying and ferries.

Uncharitable readers from outside the South-east could point out that it is also five years since the Regional Eurostar trains from Scotland, northern England and the Midlands were first promised. That they have not yet appeared is partly due to the fact that Eurostar is struggling to fill its trains from London and Ashford. A new attempt to get upmarket bums on to some of the 10 million seats this winter begins tomorrow: a day return to the French capital, in first class, for pounds 75 - less than a quarter of the normal fare.

THE FIRST no-frills kid on the European block was easyJet, which started to re-draw the aviation map four years ago next week. Like its low-cost competitors - Ryanair, Go and Virgin Express - it has a flawless safety record. Indeed, Southwest, the US airline that started the whole idea, is the world's safest. But not every easyJet customer is at ease.

Amsterdam airport, 9pm. Christine Collette's flight to Liverpool, on easyJet's last departure of the day, seemed routine enough at first. "We all got on to the plane, and began to fasten our seat-belts ready for departure," she says. "Then an announcement was made that we should leave the belts unfastened, because the plane was being refuelled."

The implication, she says, was that there was a risk of fire and that passengers should be able to leave the aircraft quickly in the event of any mishap.

Ms Collette was appalled. "I immediately left the aircraft and went back into the terminal."

Refuelling aircraft while passengers are on board is by no means unusual; indeed, on many charter flights the occupants are legally required to remain on the plane during "technical stops" to refuel. But it seems, to say the least, curious that an easyJet captain should alarm passengers by raising the prospect of danger, however slight. The easyJet spokesman says that Ms Collette misinterpreted the pilot's announcement. "He was merely suggesting that passengers could make themselves more comfortable until the aircraft was ready to depart."

ONE OF the more enjoyable tasks here is receiving readers' opinions on our stories - especially when they robustly dispute our writers' views. "The hotel where the writer stayed," says Margaret Lewis of Northumberland, about La Residence on Mauritius, "is a monstrosity that should never have been built on an unspoilt beach." Eureka House was described in our story as a "dull tourist spot", but Dr Lewis describes it as "fascinating, with its furniture made from precious tropical woods, and gives a rare sense of 19th-century Mauritius". And as for the pounds 954 our writer had paid for flights on British Airways: "I would never recommend anyone to travel on BA with its boring runway stop in Nairobi, when you can fly direct on a much superior Air Mauritius Airbus. So there."

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